Magazine article Insight on the News

Next First Lady Will Recast Role

Magazine article Insight on the News

Next First Lady Will Recast Role

Article excerpt

On the left, `Tipper' Gore. On the right, Laura Bush. Compared with Hillary Clinton, both are low-profile political wives. Either could recast the role of first lady.

The first lady is and always has been an unpaid public servant elected by one person, her husband," Lady Bird Johnson reflected in her diary 30 years ago. Times have changed, or so it would appear from the performance of Hillary Rodham Clinton. "She has set her own stamp on the White House" writes her biographer Joyce Milton. "From her point of view, she has been a force for democratization."

Three years ago, Clinton and Elizabeth Dole hit the campaign trail alongside their husbands, brandishing their Ivy-League law degrees and passion for civic causes. Beyond their party affiliations, the women were a matched pair, right down to their Methodist roots and transparent political ambitions. Pundits proclaimed a new era of first partners, and co-presidency became a term of art.

Four years later, still in character, Clinton and Dole are hot on the campaign trails again, this time for themselves. Hillary is making a carpetbagger's bid for a U.S. Senate seat from New York, while Elizabeth is reaching audaciously for the Oval Office itself.

But their likely counterparts in the 2000 presidential race, Mary Elizabeth Aitcheson "Tipper" Gore and Laura Bush, are a study in striking contrast. While modern women in many ways, neither would be mistaken for a political activist or potential candidate, and some observers have begun to talk about a return to a more traditional first ladyship. No more testifying before Congress or grand juries. No more directives to rewrite health care or other policies.

"Gore and Bush are women who happened to fall in love with guys whose business was politics" notes Al Felzenberg, a presidential historian. "They are interested in [politics] as it affects their families. I don't think this is a case of either of them looking for the public stage."

Hillary herself is looking more traditional since her husband's impeachment. And polls suggest people like that look. "Although Hillary's popularity is pretty high right now, I think that there is probably a desire on the parts of Al Gore and George W. Bush to present a contrast to her and the controversies she's been involved in," Ron Faucheux, editor and publisher of the nonpartisan Campaigns & Elections, tells Insight.

If what Gore and Bush have made public is any indication of their styles -- or more to the point, if what they have kept private is a sign of their priorities -- Americans indeed will see a more traditional first lady standing by her man on Jan. 20, 2001. "I do not believe that you will see the next first lady as a formal, quasi-Cabinet-level official or as an overtly partisan figure," says Marshall Wittman of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington.

Both women orbit around their families. Their public passions seem to be rooted less in politics than in their pasts. Just who are these potentially powerful women, and where did they come from?

Tipper was a 16-year-old blond, blue-eyed junior at St. Agnes School in Alexandria, Va., when she met Al Gore Jr. at a dance at St. Albans, his elite Washington prep school. "Without question, the biggest event of my youth was meeting Al," she since has written. They fell in love, and when Gore went off to Harvard in 1965, Tipper followed him to Boston, where she enrolled at Garland Junior College. She later transferred to Boston University, earning a degree in psychology in 1970. Within months of her graduation, she and Gore were married.

The Bushes would not find each other until seven years later. Laura was a 31-year-old librarian at a local elementary school with degrees in education and library science when mutual friends set her up with George W. at a Texas barbeque. While she was growing up as the only child of a Midland home builder, they had attended the same junior high. …

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